Ed Bouchette on the Steelers: Penguins will learn success has a price

The Penguins and their fans soon will learn the difficulties of the salary cap, much as the Steelers have experienced the past 15 years. During that time, fans have watched some of their favorite players leave because of the tough decisions that have to be made under the cap. The most recent was Alan Faneca, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, team captain and the only guard chosen to their 75th anniversary team.

Yet the Steelers also have won more games than all but two NFL teams in the salary cap era. Their 148 victories in the past 15 seasons rank behind Green Bay's 152 and New England's 150. The Steelers also played in six AFC championship games and two Super Bowls and won a league title in the salary cap era.

They did not make all the right decisions on their free agents (Mike Vrabel) nor in signing others (Deuce Staley), but they've made many more right moves than wrong ones.

The Penguins now face the kind of tough decisions the Steelers had when they passed on keeping players such as Faneca, Vrabel, Leon Searcy, Hardy Nickerson, Rod Woodson, Yancey Thigpen, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El. The Penguins face losing unrestricted free agents such as Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik and a ton of others.

In the old days, former owner Howard Baldwin would just mortgage more of the franchise and sign them all to whatever they wanted. But the salary cap was put in hockey for teams just like the Penguins, as it was in the NFL for teams such as the Steelers and Packers. Like those two NFL teams, the Penguins can win consistently by making good personnel decisions.

Not all of those choices will be popular. But one reason the Steelers did not meet Faneca's demands is that they had to meet those of Ben Roethlisberger. So if the Penguins want to sign Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury to long-term deals, they'll have to pass on others.

The Penguins also might find that while other teams might overpay someone who, say, has benefited from playing on Sidney Crosby's line, another free agent might want to sign with them for less in order to play with Crosby or Malkin or to have a better shot at winning a championship.

Difficult schedule

Yes, the Steelers have the toughest schedule in the NFL, based on their opponents' records from last season. And the way they finished by losing three of their final four games, including a playoff at home, matching that 10-6 record in Mike Tomlin's first season as their coach will be difficult.

Toughest in 2008
Opp. %
1. Steelers
2. Colts
3. Jaguars
4. Vikings
4. Ravens

But some team has to win the AFC North Division, and with it goes at least one home playoff game. Cleveland, which matched the Steelers' 10-6 record but lost both games to them and did not make the playoffs, is next season's pick by many to be the new force in the AFC North. Defense, though, will continue to be a problem for the Browns, who allowed 382 points last season. Plus, quarterback Derek Anderson must still prove he's not a one-year wonder.

If the Steelers can improve their play in their offensive line, they can play with anyone in the league this side of New England, which has their number, not to mention their defensive signals. The backfield might be unmatched in the NFL next season, including new third-down back Mewelde Moore, and they have a good and potentially dangerous group of receivers. Their defense allowed fewer points than all but the Indianapolis Colts last season.

And they can't get any worse in their special teams play.

Open and shut cases

The Steelers always have kept their practices open to the local and national media, which means they cannot blatantly violate rules such as practicing players who are on injured reserve. Former New England offensive lineman Ross Tucker accused the Patriots, who close practices to the media, of using players on injured reserve.

The NFL, under newer rules, now makes teams open their practices to local media, but only for the first 30 minutes -- basically while they stretch. Having practices open for their duration long has been a Steelers policy. To help prevent the kind of violations Tucker said went on in New England, the NFL should make all practices fully open to the media.

Bill Cowher once tested the Steelers policy by arbitrarily barring reporters from one practice because he did not want them to see that safety Carnell Lake was practicing at cornerback. Two things happened: Reporters found out and printed the information anyway, and Dan Rooney reminded his coach of the long-standing tradition of the open-practice policy. He also could have mentioned that Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls while keeping practices fully open.

But even Noll drew the line after Shouldergate in 1977, when then-Pittsburgh Press reporter John Clayton wrote that the Steelers wore shoulder pads in their spring minicamp, a practice then and now against NFL rules. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle docked the Steelers a third-round draft choice in 1978 and Noll closed minicamp practices for years thereafter. But then, in those days, that one-week minicamp was the only time the Steelers practiced between the end of one season and the start of the next summer training camp.

Specter's case

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter on Thursday put into the Congressional Record his detailed analysis on the New England Patriots' Spygate case. In it, he recounts his meetings with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, his reasons for pursuing the case and his differences with the league's conclusions, and he cites various media sources, mostly in his support. ( PDF: See a letter from Sen. Arlen Specter about the Spygate controversy.)

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com . First Published June 8, 2008 4:00 AM


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